Lawrence residents should hope those living upstream on the Kansas River never will adopt a policy of "turnabout is fair play" concerning tampering with the river flow and the agreements and understanding of Kansas River water compact participants.
Last week, Stephen Hill, on behalf of the owners of the Bowersock Mills and Power Co., which dams the river just east of the Massachusetts Street bridge, asked the state's Division of Water Resources to release more water from upstream reservoirs so he could generate more electricity at the Bowersock Dam.
The Bowersock company has a vested water right that dates back to the 1870s, pre-dating the state's 1945 law governing water rights. That senior right is said to take precedence over water rights of other water-users along the river.
Under a policy called the "parallel generation tariff," KPL Gas Service must buy all the electricity generated at Hill's dam whether or not the large utility needs the power. Hill is quite blunt in saying, "If we don't generate power, we don't get paid. We are a business; we are interested in revenue."
He also said Bowersock was entitled to the water it had requested and that his dam's water right superceded the assurance district's.
"If by requesting what is ours (water) we thereby have an impact on some other water user, it is because they were using something that doesn't belong to them," Hill is quoted as saying.
Kent Weatherby, secretary of the Kansas River Water Assurance District, said he is very concerned about Hill's request. He pointed out Hill and the Bowersock company do not belong to the water assurance organization and do not pay any membership dues to help pay for the district's operations, maintenance, administration and water storage space. "He's riding free on assurance district water anyway," he said of Hill.
Weatherby added, "He is doing things that potentially destroy the assurance district and could force it to run out of water in time of drought. He's looking for a short-term advantage over everyone in the basin."
What it boils down to is that Hill wants to exercise his right to have more water released from upstream reservoirs so he can generate more electricity at his Bowersock Dam, which KPL then must buy. He is doing this even though there is no demand for the electricity and he could be lowering the water supply available to cities such as Manhattan, Topeka and Kansas City, Kan., along with all the other water users along the Kansas River, if and when the river basin experiences dry conditions.
This is why it is hoped those upstream never adopt the philosophy of Hill, who apparently doesn't worry too much about the potential water needs of these upstream cities, just as long as he can have enough water flow to generate electricity to sell to KPL.
Lawrence officials should keep their fingers crossed the time never comes when this city needs additional water for some emergency and must rely on the understanding and cooperation of upstream officials. It would be easy for them to respond to such a request, particularly in a time of severe drought, by saying, "Hill, no."
For years, the Journal-World has noted that fresh water may become this country's most precious natural resource, and the current Kansas River situation could be just the beginning of many angry, damaging arguments relative to who has the right to a limited supply of water in Kansas.
The current Hill-water assurance district matter is not a pretty picture, and upstream city officials and water users must wonder what goes on in Lawrence and what kind of cooperation is being exhibited by the Bowersock Dam owners.